Bill Lee

Lee administration plans to spend $400M on services for people with disabilities

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a press conference in Nashville on March 22, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee’s administration is earmarking $400 million in federal recovery money to provide home and community support services to people with disabilities.

Here’s the full release:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, TennCare and the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD) announced a bold plan to invest up to $400 million of federal COVID-19 relief funds in direct supports for thousands of Tennesseans in need.

The funds, made available through the American Rescue Plan (ARP), will provide home and community-based services (HCBS) for older adults and individuals with disabilities across Tennessee, allowing them to live safely in their homes, support family caregivers, and live their lives as independently as possible within their communities.

“Through this historic investment, Tennesseans with disabilities will have greater opportunities to live independently, participate in the workforce and reach their fullest potential,” said Gov. Bill Lee. “It’s my hope that this enhanced support will shine a light on the important services that caregivers provide and change the lives of Tennesseans across our state.”

“This infusion of funding represents the single largest investment in HCBS services in the state’s history,” said Stephen Smith, TennCare Director. “It is an opportunity  made possible by the TennCare III demonstration approved in January of this year, since the availability of shared savings and additional federal funding via the waiver will help ensure continued state support of these important investments once the federal funding has expired.”

“Serving more people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to reach their employment, community engagement, and independence goals has been a top priority for both DIDD and TennCare since day one,” said DIDD Commissioner Brad Turner. “This is an investment that will change lives, provide relief to family caregivers and direct support staff, and further our vision of supporting people to live the lives they envision for themselves.”

TennCare’s federally-approved plan, developed in partnership with the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD), is based on broad stakeholder input and focuses on two primary objectives:

  1. Increasing access to home and community-based services for those in need; and
  2. Strengthening the frontline workforce that delivers services to those enrolled in HCBS programs.

This historic plan accomplishes two priorities established by Governor Lee and the Tennessee General Assembly prior to the COVID-19 pandemic:

  1. Provides services to 2,000 individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, clearing the TennCare Employment and Community First CHOICES program waiting list
  2. Invests in recruitment, training and retention of frontline support staff to better serve Tennesseans with disabilities.

Additional information about the plan can be found here.

Lee budget hearings get underway Monday

Gov. Bill Lee, second from left, holds a budget hearing with the Department of Economic and Community Development on Nov. 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig/Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee is holding annual public budget hearings this week. Given the state’s massive budget surplus and influx of huge amounts of federal money, this year’s hearings will likely come without the charade of having departments to outline theoretical spending cuts (most of which didn’t come to pass, even in more meager times).

Lee has followed predecessor Bill Haslam’s style in hearings with department heads, mostly avoiding controversy or criticism. Then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, by contrast, would often home in on perceived shortcomings to pressure his Cabinet members to perform better – or be replaced. 

The first of this year’s set of hearings should give a good indication about how things are going to go: The Department of Health has been battered by controversy ever since the firing of vaccine chief Shelly Fiscus this summer. An AP records request found top agency officials were dismayed at her firing. Commissioner Lisa Piercey, meanwhile, was “really angry” that colleagues had written nice things about Fiscus in an email about her departure, according to the report. “It’s been fun around here,” chief medical officer Tim Jones wrote.

It would come as a big surprise if Lee touched on any of that this morning.

UPDATE: Here’s what Lee had to say to open proceedings with the Health Department:

It’s been a long difficult year and I commend you for the work that you’ve done. Much pressure, much scrutiny, much challenge, health issues for many Tennesseans, loss of life, loss of health. And for a department of public helath, there’s probably never in recent history been as great a challenge to deal with and navigate through, and I’m increadibly proud of what you and your team, fully across the board, has done.”

Here’s the full schedule:

Budget Hearing Schedule (all times listed in CT)

Monday, November 1

  • 9 a.m.-9:45 a.m. Department of Health
  • 10 a.m.-10:45 a.m. Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services
  • 11 a.m.-11:45 p.m. Division of TennCare
  • 1:15 p.m.-2 p.m. Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities
  • 2:15 p.m-3 p.m. Department of Human Services
  • 3:15-4 p.m. Department of Children’s Services
  • 4:15 p.m-4:45 p.m. Department of Military / Tennessee Emergency Management Agency

Tuesday, November 2

  • 9 a.m.-9:45 a.m. Department of Education
  • 10 a.m-10:45 a.m. Tennessee Higher Education Commission
  • 10:50 a.m.-11:20 a.m. Tennessee Education Lottery Corporation
  • 11:30 a.m.-noon Department of Tourist Development
  • 1:30 p.m.-2 p.m. Department of Agriculture
  • 2:15 p.m.-3 p.m. Department of Labor and Workforce Development
  • 3:15 p.m.-4 p.m. Department of Transportation

Wednesday, November 3

  • 9 a.m.-9:45 a.m. Department of Economic and Community Development
  • 10 a.m.-10:30 a.m. Department of Commerce and Insurance
  • 10:45 a.m.-11:15 a.m. Department of Financial Institutions
  • 11:30 a.m.-noon. Department of Human Resources
  • 1:30 p.m.-2:15 p.m. Department of General Services
  • 2:30-3 p.m. Department of Revenue
  • 3:15-3:45 Department of Finance and Administration

Thursday, November 4

  • 9:00-9:45 Department of Environment and Conservation
  • 10:00-10:45 Department of Correction
  • 11:00-11:45 Department of Safety and Homeland Security
  • 1:30-2:00 Tennessee Bureau of Investigation
  • 2:15-2:45 Department of Veterans Services

So who was at that Pence luncheon at the governor’s mansion?

With no press invited or informed about Gov. Bill Lee’s hosting of former Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to the governor’s mansion in Nashville, we’re left to our own devices to try to figure out who attended. Helpfully, Pence posted a photo of the luncheon on Twitter.

Here’s who we think we’ve identified from the photo:

  • Gov. Bill Lee
  • First lady Maria Lee
  • Construction contractor Turney Talley
  • Finance Commissioner Butch Eley
  • Tennessee Titans President Burke Nihill
  • Former Vice President Mike Pence
  • Philanthropist Scott Niswonger
  • Nancy Dishner of the Niswonger Foundation 
  • Adam Lister of Tennesseans for Student Success
  • House Speaker Cameron Sexton
  • Developer Steve Smith
  • Political consultant Chip Saltsman
  • Advance Financial lobbyist Cullen Earnest
  • Construction contractor Steve Kirby
  • Former Gov. Bill Haslam
  • Karen Pence, wife of Mike Pence.
  • Construction contractor Cal Turner

Recognize anyone else? Drop us a line and we’ll update.

Lee calls for review of much-litigated school funding formula

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a press conference in Nashville on March 22, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee is calling for a review of the state’s complicated Basic Education Program school funding formula. Complicating any attempted overhaul are the years of legal battles fought about the fairness of the current system and a zero-sum approach many lawmakers bring toward making any changes affecting districts in their home areas.

Here’s the full release from the governor’s office:

Nashville, TN – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn invited Tennesseans to participate in the full review of the state’s education funding formula and explore possibilities for a more student-centered approach.  

“We will pursue a rigorous review of our state’s education funding to ensure we are properly investing in students and stewarding our resources well,” said Gov. Lee. “I invite every Tennessee parent to tell us about their current experiences as well as their hopes for the education, environment and experience in our K-12 public schools.” 

The state’s current school funding framework, also known as the Basic Education Program (BEP), has not been meaningfully updated in more than 30 years. 

“Tennessee’s students are the future of our state, and we’ve got to be sure our public schools are well-equipped to prepare each and every one of them for lifelong success,” said Commissioner Penny Schwinn. “Consistent with our focus to continuously improve the academic achievement of all Tennessee students, we are excited to open public conversations and discuss an investment strategy that aligns with those goals and values.” 

District and school leaders, elected officials, families, education stakeholders and members of the public will be engaged in the coming months through committees, survey opportunities, local meetings and more. Public engagement will focus on a student investment strategy that incorporates the following: 

— Prioritizes students over systems 

— Empowers parents to engage in their child’s education 

— Incentivizes student outcomes 

— Ensures all students, regardless of location or learning needs, are served at a high-level 

— Reflects Tennesseans’ values 

— Creates flexible funding that prepare students for postsecondary success 

“How we fund education is one of the most important conversations that we can have as a state,” said House Education Administration Committee Chairman Mark White. “Today’s announcement and the engagement opportunities to follow will better equip leaders at all levels as we ensure that school funding works to serve all students. I am excited for the opportunity to work alongside my colleagues in the General Assembly, the administration, local officials, educators, and parents on this important topic.” 

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Lee touts economic progress in rural areas

Gov. Bill Lee welcomes delegates to a summit on economically distressed counties in Linden on Aug. 13, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has made economic development in rural areas one of his top priorities. At a rural summit at Pickwick Lake on Thursday, the governor touted his achievements so far that have included the number of distressed counties dropping from 19 in 2018 to nine today.

Here’s the release from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced Tennessee has reduced the state’s number of distressed counties to an all-time low as the Lee Administration focuses on targeted interventions for workforce development and infrastructure.

“Early on, we set a goal that we would have less than 10 distressed counties by 2025,” said Gov. Lee. “By focusing on workforce development and infrastructure improvements, we are down to nine counties and will continue working to get remaining counties on the path to prosperity.”

Distressed counties rank among the 10 percent most economically distressed counties in the nation according to the Appalachian Regional Commission.

In the past four years, Tennessee has cut the number of distressed counties in half from 19 in 2018 to nine today. Since Gov. Lee took office, McNairy, Jackson, Fentress, Morgan, Hardeman, and Wayne counties have moved off the distressed list.

In 2019, Gov. Lee’s first Executive Order directed all state executive departments to issue a statement of rural impact and provide recommendations for better serving rural Tennessee. Key workforce and infrastructure interventions include:

• Creating the Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education (GIVE) program and the Future Workforce Initiative to expand access to vocational and technical education.
• Investing $79 million to eliminate the 11,400 TCAT waiting list and increasing apprenticeships by more than 30 percent across the state.
• Allocating $100 million for broadband expansion in the FY21 budget which improves educational outcomes in rural communities.

These targeted strategies have resulted in Tennessee securing 132 projects in rural counties with over 23,000 new job commitments and $12.6 billion in capital investment since 2019.

Today, the Governor’s West Tennessee Rural Opportunity Summit was held in Counce, Tenn. The East Tennessee Summit will be held in November in Newport, Tenn. The Governor’s Rural Summit focuses on at-risk and distressed counties by engaging city and county mayors, education and economic leaders, and cabinet members.

Garth Brooks, Carla Thomas among winners of Governor’s Arts Award

Singers Garth Books, Trisha Yearwood, and Carla Thomas are among the winners of this year’s Tennessee Governor’s Arts Award.

Here’s the release from the Tennessee Arts Commission:

Nashville — Governor and First Lady Lee have announced the recipients of the Tennessee Governor’s Arts Award, Tennessee’s highest honor in the arts. Since 1971, the Governor’s Arts Awards have celebrated those who have made outstanding contributions to the state’s cultural life. 

“Tennessee has a rich artistic heritage, and we are proud of these outstanding recipients who are leaders in the arts across our state,” said Gov. Lee. “Maria and I congratulate each of them, and we are proud of their accomplishments.”

The recipients come from all walks of life and symbolize the tremendous variety of the arts and culture of Tennessee. The Governor’s Arts Awards are presented in three different categories — Distinguished Artist, Arts Leadership and Folklife Heritage.

“The awards are a testimony to the value that the arts bring to our communities, our schools, and our lives,” said Jan McNally, Chair of the Tennessee Arts Commission.

The 2021 Governor’s Arts Awards recipients are:

Arts Leadership Award
Birthplace of Country Music, Bristol
Frank Bluestein, Germantown
Borderless Arts, Gallatin
HoLa Hora Latina, Knoxville
Debbie Litch, Memphis

Distinguished Artist Award
Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, Nashville
Doyle Lawson, Kingsport
Carla Thomas, Memphis

Folklife Heritage Award
Ludie Amos, Clarksville
Dr. Robert (Roby) Cogswell, Nashville
National Rolley Hole Marbles Championship and Festival, Hilham
Richard Turner, Stanton

“The arts help build stronger communities by enhancing the quality of life and the distinctive character of Tennessee places,” said Anne B. Pope, Executive Director of the Tennessee Arts Commission. “The 2021 recipients of the Governor’s Arts Award have each contributed significantly in defining who we are as a state.”

About the Tennessee Arts Commission

Through a variety of investments, the Commission encourages excellence in artistic expression through the state’s artists, arts organizations and arts activities. That commitment has expanded through the years to increase access and opportunities for all citizens to participate in the arts. 

Potential gubernatorial candidate Ogles: ‘We are not Nashville’

Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles, a potential GOP challenger to Gov. Bill Lee in next year’s primary, is touting his refusal to impose a mask mandate or impose other restrictions on businesses during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In that chaos, my objective was to keep Maury County open for business,” Ogles told the Maury County Chamber & Economic Alliance, The Daily Herald of Columbia reports. “I could not afford to let our downtown square close. We are not Nashville. We don’t have hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on tourism.” 

Ogles has criticized what he has called Lee’s “abuses of power” and backed calls to hold a special session to push back against mask mandates. Ogles had declined to impose a requirement to wear face coverings despite the governor previously extending that authority to county mayors.

“Nowhere in the state constitution do I have that authority,” Ogles said. “Nowhere in state law did I have that authority, and I refused to accept that authority. That is not what government is designed to do.” 

Ogles’ comments at the Chamber event were mostly focused on economic matters and population growth issues facing the county. The Daily Herald did not report on any reaction by Ogles to Lee landing a $5.8 billion Ford plant for the Memphis Regional Megasite last week.

Ogles has been more pointed in his previous attacks on what he called “Lee’s indecisiveness and half measures.”

“At a time when truly conservative Governors are aggressively fighting against both local and federal assaults on our freedoms, Governor Lee is taking the twisting path to appease the Left and their allies,” Ogles posted on social media in August.

Republican lawmakers being called back into a special session later this month to take up a $500 million incentive package for Ford are clamoring for yet another special session to try to block mask mandates.

Sexton threatens abstentions on Ford deal if there is no second session on COVID-19 mandates

Rep. Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) speaks to colleagues at a House Republican Caucus on July 24, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

House Republicans may sit on their hands rather than vote for a $500 million incentive package for Ford’s massive investment in West Tennessee if there isn’t going to be another special session on COVID-19 mandates, Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) said Friday.

“If there wasn’t a special session, you’d have members who vote against [the Ford deal] in the House,” Sexton told WWTN-FM. “Instead of getting the 90-plus votes that is like everyone’s in unison with the decision and wanting Ford, you’d be in the 70s. It would still pass, but is that really the message you want to send to the biggest investment in Tennessee history?”

Gov. Bill Lee has called a special session for the week of Oct. 18 to address issues related to the Ford deal. He extended his executive order allowing parents to opt their school children out of mask mandates on Thursday and said he wants to fight against federal rulings and orders about the issue in court rather than in the General Assembly.

That’s not good enough for some GOP lawmakers.

“You just have members who are like, If I’m in East Tennessee, and it’s great that we landed that in West Tennessee, but I’ve got families and parents over here and who need help and we’re not doing anything to help them. And why can’t we?” Sexton said.

“Members at that point may choose to vote for it anyway or they may choose to say I may not vote no, but I’m not going to vote yes,” he said.

One issue Sexton said lawmakers may want to take up is whether businesses should be subject to lawsuits from workers they require to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

“Currently they have absolute immunity if an employee has a reaction to that vaccine,” Sexton said. “So, I think it’s important for us to go in and take a look and say if you do a mandate on your employees then you shouldn’t have the immunity to where they don’t have any repercussions if that happens.”

The business community is likely to take a dim view of lifting liability protections enacted amid the pandemic.

Sexton and Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) issued a joint statement on Friday:

The Ford megasite deal is transformational for Tennessee, and we look forward to working with Gov. Lee to finalize this project as part of his special session call for Ford Motor Company. At the same time, we have heard from many Tennesseans seeking relief from burdensome Covid-19 mandates being imposed upon them. We are working together per our state constitution to call an additional special session upon the completion of the megasite session to address issues surrounding Covid -19.”

Lee calls special session limited to Ford deal

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at Ford’s announcement it will build an electric vehicle and battery plant at the Memphis Regional Megasite on Sept. 28, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has issued a call for lawmakers to return into a special session starting on Oct. 18 to take up a $500 million grant for Ford to build a new electric vehicle and battery production campus in West Tennessee and to establish a college of applied technology at the site.

While Republican lawmakers are clamoring for a platform to denounce what they see as federal overreach on mask mandates and COVID-19 vaccines, Lee is limiting the call of the special session to matters related to the Ford deal.

While it remains unclear what exactly lawmakers could do to fight federal court rulings or executive orders, there is still a growing sentiment that a special session should be held if lawmakers are coming back to Nashville anyway for the Ford deal. If so, they may have to take the route of calling themselves into their own separate special session by gathering the signatures of at least 66 House members and 22 senators — a step that has occurred only twice in Tennessee history.

Here’s the release from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee called for the Tennessee General Assembly to convene on Monday, October 18, 2021 for a special session to address funding, buildout and oversight of Ford Motor Company’s historic $5.6 billion investment at the Memphis Regional Megasite.

“Our partnership with Ford and SK Innovation will transform West Tennessee, and it’s important we ensure this project has the structure, funding and accountability needed to be successful,” said Gov. Lee. “I am calling a special session to secure a lasting impact for Tennesseans, and I thank the legislature for their partnership in an efficient, productive assembly.”

During the special session, lawmakers will address funding to support and benefit the Memphis Regional Megasite, including site development, education and workforce preparation.

The full special session call may be viewed here.

Gunmaker Smith & Wesson moving to Tennessee

Gunmaker Smith & Wesson is moving its headquarters and assembly operations from Massachusetts to Blount County. Gov. Bill Lee’s administration says the deal involves a $125 million investment and 750 new jobs.

Tennessee is also home to Italian gunmaker Barretta and 19 other small arms and ammunition manufacturers.

Here’s the release from Department of Economic and Community Development:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bob Rolfe and Smith & Wesson Brands, Inc. officials today announced the U.S.-based leader in firearms manufacturing and design will relocate its headquarters and other major operations from Springfield, Massachusetts to Maryville, Tennessee.

In addition to its headquarters, Smith & Wesson will relocate its distribution, assembly, and plastic injection molding operations to Tennessee. The project represents an investment of approximately $125 million and will create 750 new jobs.

Smith & Wesson will locate in Partnership Park North in Blount County, where the company plans to break ground before the end of the year.

Founded in 1852, Smith & Wesson is one of the world’s leading manufacturers and designers of firearms. They manufacture a wide array of handguns (including revolvers and pistols), long guns (including modern sporting rifles, bolt action rifles, and shotguns), handcuffs, suppressors, and other firearm-related products for sale to a wide variety of customers, including firearm enthusiasts, collectors, hunters, sportsmen, competitive shooters, individuals desiring home and personal protection, law enforcement and security agencies and officers, and military agencies in the United States and throughout the world.

Smith & Wesson joins more than 20 small arms and ammunition manufacturers located in Tennessee. Tennessee ranks No. 1 in the nation for employment in the small arms and ammunition sector, with employment increasing by 54% over the last five years.

Since 2017, TNECD has supported 10 economic development projects in Blount County, resulting in approximately 3,100 job commitments and $1.4 billion in capital investment.